As a student at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School in North Plymouth, Minn., Grant couldn’t decide which he liked better, OxyContin or cocaine, so he took a lot of each. “My mom always told me I was a brilliant scholar when I was sober, but most of the school days I was pretty much up in the clouds,” he recalls.
By sophomore year, his life had gotten so off track that he spent more than three months at the residential substance abuse program at Thistledew, a Minnesota Department of Corrections juvenile facility for teens. When he was released this April, Grant knew that he didn’t want to return to his high school. “If I went back, I’d be using within a week,” he says. “If I went there, I might not be alive. My next relapse was going to be a big relapse.”
A Drug-Free Environment
Instead, Grant applied to Sobriety High School in Minnesota, one of 35 public recovery high schools scattered around the country. With fewer than 60 students, Sobriety is a big change from the 1,500-student Robbinsdale Armstrong or any other traditional high school—and that’s the whole point.
Recovery high schools are designed specifically to serve students who have been through a professional substance abuse treatment program and are working to stay away from drugs and alcohol. The schools typically serve multiple districts and are funded from both the per-pupil state funds that follow a student and what districts raise themselves. Nationwide, recovery high schools are operated as charter schools, schools within a school, schools that share a building, and stand-alone schools. In a school within a school, recovering students are in some or all classes together but remain students of the public high school with the same administration. In a shared building several schools operate, but each has its own classes and principal. What they have in common is a commitment to providing a safe haven and support for students learning to deal with addiction.
“For students in recovery, returning to their former high school environment is returning to where their using friends are, where their connections are,” says Monique Bourgeois, the executive director of the Association of Recovery Schools (www.recoveryschools.org) and a licensed alcohol and drug counselor at Solace Academy, a recovery high school in Chaska, Minn. “It’s no different from asking an adult coming out of substance abuse treatment to return to his or her favorite bar six hours a day, five days a week.”
To ensure that staff and students can have very close relationships, recovery high schools keep class sizes low. The schools have a counselor on staff and typically devote some of the school day to talking through issues, asking students to be honest about their use, their troubles and their thoughts—an almost painful level of transparency. Most require students to be enrolled in a 12-step program, like Alcoholics Anonymous. “We tell our stories and what’s going on day to day. Everyone is open, and that’s really good,” Grant says. “I like that it’s sober people and a sober environment. Everyone is in NA [Narcotics Anonymous] or AA [Alcoholics Anonymous], working with their sponsor and working the steps. I’ve got the support and motivation I think I need to stay sober.”
A Model for Success
There is no shortage of students like Grant. More than two million youths nationwide aged 12 to 17, or 8.2 percent of that population, meet the criteria for a substance abuse diagnosis, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (www.samhsa.gov). To meet this need, the first recovery high schools opened 20 years ago. Ten years later there were only about a half dozen.
But the trend is accelerating. Today, Andrew Finch, co-founder and former executive director of the Association of Recovery Schools, says he knows of about 35 public recovery high schools in the country, each serving students who are addicted to substances ranging from alcohol to marijuana to crack. There are also a handful of similar private schools as well.
“Most of these schools start from grassroots advocacy efforts, often by parents or teachers who see a need,” Finch says. The big exception is in Massachusetts, where three years ago the state provided nonprofits with funds to launch three recovery high schools, each of which offers enrollment to multiple districts (as do most recovery high schools). “We do a year-round schedule with a mandated summer program to keep them connected to the school,” says Michelle Lipinski, the principal of Northshore Recovery High School in Beverly, one of the three Massachusetts schools.
With fewer than 50 students, Northshore is, like Sobriety High, a small school. In researching 18 recovery high schools nationwide, Finch found that the average student body was about 30 students, with some schools having as few as seven to 10 students. “They have to go the extra mile to ensure alcohol and drug use is out of the school. It has to be part of the culture,” he says. “When everybody knows everybody else, then the students can police themselves to a degree.”
School culture is important at a recovery high school in part because the student population tends to be more fluid than at a traditional high school. New students arrive throughout the year as they graduate from a treatment program. “Students are coming and going—we have an open enrollment,” says Mark Leufkens, the coordinator and lead teacher at Summit High School in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Like most recovery schools, students must make a commitment to attend Summit High: They must answer a questionnaire, interview at the school, and sign a contract promising to be honest and to work toward continued sobriety. Some students decide to stay and receive their degree from the school; others eventually want to return to a traditional high school. “We like them to stay for at least a semester,” Leufkens says. “Sometimes our professional recommendation is that they’re not really ready to go back yet, but at the same time, we’re based on choice. Our therapist really works with students to know themselves and what’s best for them.”
If They Start Using Again
Some students leave a recovery high school because they’ve starting using drugs or alcohol again. Working with adolescents struggling with addiction is not conducive to unbreakable rules, though, and Finch says that most recovery high schools are more about support than punishment. If a student is unable to remain sober, he or she may have to leave the school, but relapse is not typically grounds for dismissal, and even students who have fallen back into addiction are gladly welcomed back after they have finished another round of substance abuse treatment.
“For some people, a relapse is part of the journey of recovery, and for most schools, if the student is honest about that part of that recovery, they’ll work with him or her at the school,” says Bourgeois. “We’re in the business of being part of a continuum of care for addiction and recovery management. We don’t prevent relapse, but we can help prevent a return to active addiction.”
The balance between support and indulgence is key to making a recovery high school work. Most schools require weekly or random drug testing, for example, and students have sponsors in their 12-step programs. “We know we’re not the be all and end all,” says Jodi Hanson, the recovery director at the West Academy campus, one of four sites of the Sobriety High charter school. “This is a happy place, but I also have to say sometimes, ‘I’m fresh out of magic wands. I can’t make you sober,’” Hanson says.
Even with a focus on sobriety, a recovery high school is still a high school with academic demands. And Finch says that he’s seen more school administrators consider the best way to provide a solid education to students who typically arrive after having fallen behind academically while addicted and dealing with often raw emotional issues.
In addition, Summit offers dual enrollment with the local community college to give students more options to take college courses, for example, and at Sobriety High, students can augment core classes with electives that are heavy on use of technology, such as creative media.
Hanson says many students find the small classes and closer relationships with the faculty helpful. “I used to hate going to classes so much,” says Zoee, a sophomore at Sobriety High. “Now, even when I don’t like the subject very much I go.”
Zoee never made it to high school, having run away and circled in and out of treatment programs right out of eighth grade for using marijuana, alcohol and cocaine. “My grades have gone up here a whole lot, and I’ve been able to focus more,” she says. “If it wasn’t for this school, I would not be where I am today. I have the [AA] program, and that helps. The school is a part that helps.”
Carl Vogel is a freelance writer in Chicago.